The stuff feminist reality is made of: Michelle Obama, feminism and the raced meaning of motherhood

By Amanda Grigg

Politico is jumping on the “lean in” bandwagon and upping the ante by dragging Michelle Obama along for the ride with their Friday cover story, “Leaning Out: How Michele Obama became a feminist nightmare.”

I guess it depends on what you mean by “feminist nightmare.” I’m a feminist and my most terrifying recurring nightmare is that I’m back in undergrad during finals week and I realize I haven’t been to class all semester. I usually have it when I’m under a deadline so…try to figure that one out Freud.

Anyway, the author Michelle Cottle (the other Michelle) suggests that feminists are disappointed that Michele Obama has focused on being “mom in chief” rather than wading into more significant (and controversial) policy debates. Cottle highlights an earlier critique by The Root writer Keli Goff and criticism from Linda Hirschman (of National Prospect “Homeward Bound” fame) and suggests that Michelle Obama’s policy-avoidance might be particularly unnecessary following Obama’s re-election – there’s no need to worry about an active first lady turning off voters (the Hillary Clinton factor).

The New Republic and Slate both featured articles defending Michelle Obama and tweets from prominent feminists which suggest that the “disappointment” is not widespread. And Cottle includes quotes from defenders in her piece as well, largely they’re “choice” feminists arguing that any choice a woman willingly chooses represents a win for feminism (a debate that could launch a million posts but suffice it to say, there’s more to feminism than that).

In my opinion, the best parts of the article are those where Cottle quotes black feminist writers because they do a much better job of illustrating the pretty classic dilemma Michelle Obama faces as a prominent black woman. First up is Rebecca Walker (author and daughter of Alice Walker) who says:

I wouldn’t necessarily say Michelle Obama had to kowtow to some demand that she become a June Cleaver type. I would say she understands the need to help people understand a model that they may not have been familiar with, and to help them learn how to trust something that they may not have been able to in past.

Rebecca Walker is drawing our attention to the fact that Michelle Obama being seen as anything near a June Cleaver type is something new and doesn’t have quite the same meaning as if a white first lady were seen in this way. Why? Because femininity and motherhood have had very different meanings for black women than they have for white women. For more we can turn to feminist scholar and all around badass Patricia Hill Collins:

Two elements of the traditional family ideal are especially problematic for African-American women. First, the assumed split between the “public” sphere of paid employment and the “private” sphere of unpaid family responsibilities has never worked for U.S. Black women.

During slavery, black women worked in what was allegedly the “public” sphere of Southern agriculture, but did so without wages and without any familial privacy. Since the end of slavery, and for a whole host of reasons (including continuing inequality and discrimination leading to lower wages among blacks which in turn require women to contribute to the household income). Because Black men have traditionally been denied a family wage, Black women have been far more likely to work outside of the home. Generally this was not part of an effort to establish themselves as equal to men but to secure sufficient income for their families. Collins continues: 

“Second, the public/private binary separating the family households from the paid labor market is fundamental in explaining U.S. gender ideology. If one assumes that real men work and real women take care of families, then African-Americans suffer from deficient ideas concerning gender. In particular, Black women become less “feminine,” because they work outside the home, work for pay and thus compete with them, and their work takes them away from their children.”

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Michelle Obama on the cover of Parenting magazine

Historically, white middle and upper income women have been considered inherently good mothers who are deserving of having more children while poor women and minority women are characterized as unfit mothers, unworthy of or too irresponsible to have more children.[1] This ideology has often manifested itself in state policies that encourage motherhood among well-situated white women and discourage it among poor women and women of color. For example, in 1970, black women were sterilized at twice the rate of white women, and throughout the decade predominantly black recipients of public assistance reported that welfare agency workers had threatened to cut off their benefits if they did not agree to undergo state funded sterilization.[2]  In Welfare’s End Gwendolyn Mink argues that race-valuation of motherhood is evident in the difference in policy design between Survivor’s benefits and welfare programs like AFDC and TANF. Predominantly white Survivor’s benefits are more generous and less stigmatized than Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and they support mothers who choose to stay at home to care for their children. TANF benefits are not only stigmatized and increasingly limited, they also refuse to support poor/black motherhood by demanding that mothers work outside of the home. Mink suggests that these policies send a clear message to poor single and often black mothers that their care is not valued.[3]

So you could argue that by presenting such an admirable (and well-liked) model of black motherhood, Michelle Obama is challenging the historic devaluation of black caregiving and raced assumptions about motherhood and family.
On the other hand, Patricia Hill Collins suggests that rather than trying to explain why Black women deviate from or trying to meet the historically white standards of femininity (which today are pretty much only met on Modern Family/in the public imagination) women should challenge “the very constructs of work and family themselves.” So there’s definitely grounds to be critical of Michelle Obama’s choice to change the meaning of motherhood via replication rather than by rejecting it (the current model of motherhood) entirely.
OBAMA NEW YORKERCottle also quotes The Root writer Keli Goff’s earlier article listing 5 things she would like to hear Michelle “preach” in her husband’s second term, which included her stance on reproductive rights:

Michelle Obama is also on the record as supporting reproductive rights in recent years as Planned Parenthood has been under attack, but she has waded into the issue only tepidly. With African-American and poor women more likely to have unplanned pregnancies and out-of-wedlock births and to raise families in poverty—not to mention the high AIDS rates among black Americans—her voice could go a long way toward making a difference on issues of reproductive and sexual health.

When I read this I immediately thought of Zoltan Hajnal’s Changing White Attitudes Towards Black Political Leadership. Haven’t read it? Well you should, but just this once I’ll summarize. Hajnal studies white attitudes towards black political leadership and finds that:

Once black officials have the opportunity to prove that black leadership generally does not harm white interests, uncertainty should fade, whites’ views of blacks and black leadership should improve, and more whites should be willing to consider voting for black candidates.

Initially this seems encouraging. But, often black communities elect black leaders with the specific hope that they will make significant changes to the status quo, changes that will almost inevitably “harm white interests” insofar as whites have benefited from racial inequality. Hajnal argues that this shouldn’t be the case, particularly if whites continue to become more sympathetic to racial injustices. But either way it suggests that black leaders must strike a careful balance between advocating for racial justice and affirming whites’ fears and thus, their resistance of black leadership.

In the case of Michelle Obama, this likely means that speaking out about women’s issues, let alone black women’s issues, would result not just in the kind of backlash that Hillary Clinton saw, but could also confirm white fears of and dislike of black leadership. If that sounds paranoid spend some time checking out the google hits for “Obama race war” and “Obama class warfare.” Or don’t and just trust me (the internet is a terrible place). This presents a real dilemma. If black leaders are elected in part, because constituents hope that they will change the racial status quo, but will not be reelected (or will negatively affect views of black leadership generally) if they change the status quo, they’re in a real bind.

So when we consider what black motherhood has meant, and what a black feminist first lady would likely mean it’s not surprising and certainly not a feminist nightmare that Michelle Obama has chosen the path of incremental change.

Edit 11/26, a quick addition: Notably the two big issues Michelle Obama has focused on seem to allow her to address problems that are particularly pressing to the black community without invoking race. Childhood obesity and barriers to higher ed for low-income students certainly hit racial minorities harder than whites, but they don’t strike anyone as particularly radical or inherently “raced” issues.


[1] This is in part because black women have historically defied the norms that define motherhood in opposition to wage-work and the public sphere. See Patricia Hill Collins Black Feminist Thought  and Dorothy Roberts, “Racism and Patriarchy in the Meaning of Motherhood,” American University Journal of Gender & Law, 1993 Vol. 1: 1-38

[2] Stephen Trombley, The Right to Reproduce (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988), 177.  

[3] Gwendolyn Mink, “At the crossroads of race, morality, and poverty, welfare law codifies disdain for poor single mothers as mothers. (121) Welfare law sends a message to poor single mothers, that their care is not valued.

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